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The debate over whether Americans should be permitted to vote via the Internet has long pitted voting system manufacturers, who frame it to election officials as inevitable and modern, against top cybersecurity experts who insist it cannot be done without inviting wide-scale fraud.
In recent months, however, a powerful new force has joined the fight: people with disabilities, insisting that using electronic ballots from their homes ought to be seen as a right guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Most notably, a federal judge in Maryland is scheduled next month to hear arguments as to whether the state board of elections must certify a system that involves the Internet-based delivery and marking of absentee ballots for people with disabilities. The lawsuit’s main plaintiff is the National Federation for the Blind (NFB), joined by a man with cerebral palsy and a woman who is deaf and blind.
Separately, the Utah legislature in March passed the Internet Voting Pilot Project Act to permit county election officials to develop systems for people with disabilities to vote online. No actual system has been proposed or adopted yet.
“This is a civil rights issue we’re talking about,” said Lou Ann Blake, the Help America Act project coordinator for the NFB, which is based in Baltimore. “People without disabilities take it for granted being able to vote privately or independently. That’s not something the blind person can do absentee. Even if it’s a family member helping them, that can be an awkward situation. I want to be able to vote privately and independently absentee like everybody else. I don’t think that’s an irrational expectation.”
A stepping stone
The proposed system in Maryland, developed with a $653,000 federal grant, is not full-fledged Internet voting, but, observers on both sides agree, it could easily be a stepping stone. It would allow absentee voters with disabilities to obtain their ballots via the Internet and mark them in an Internet-connected browser window that communicates with their county election offices’ servers. Voters would then have to print out the ballots, sign them and mail them in.
A 2009 law requires states to provide electronic ballot delivery to overseas and military voters. In 31 states and the District of Columbia, those voters can also return their ballots electronically via email, fax or a Web-based ballot-marking service like the Maryland one, according to a June report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Since 2012, all Alaska voters have also been able to use similar systems to gather, mark and return ballots electronically.
Those systems are worrisome to opponents, but for the most part they represent a relatively small number of voters scattered across the nation. The focus on Maryland is the result of both limited resources and the fear of a federal precedent, said Susan Greenhalgh of Verified Voting, a watchdog group that raises concerns about vulnerabilities in electronic voting systems of all types.
"The concern is that if this lawsuit succeeds, it could persuade others that to be compliant with the ADA you must have an online ballot-marking system,” Greenhalgh said. “That could be very, very damaging to require that all over the country."
Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic co-director Penny Venetis, who works with Verified Voting, went further, warning, “You get one federal court decision that says that, we will have Internet voting.”
A variety of scenarios
Opponents lay out a variety of scenarios that would make Maryland susceptible to vote tampering. They range from hackers obtaining other people’s ballots and forging their signatures to infiltrators changing votes by taking control of the interface between voters and their ballots.
The system encodes the vote choices in a bar code atop the printout that is then read by an optical scanner when it arrives at the registrar’s office, and there’s no way for voters to know if the encoding is an accurate reflection of their votes or even what’s marked on their paper ballots, said Barbara Simons, former president of the Association for Computer Machinery and co-author of “Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?”
"Online ballot marking, depending on the way that it’s done, could be 99 percent of the way to Internet voting,” Simons said. “If the voters are communicating with the election officials’ machine or the vendor’s machine, you’re setting up the structure for full-blown Internet voting. There’s this extra step where the marked ballot is sent back to the voter to then print out and mail in, but it’s already been marked in a barcode.”
Maryland State Board of Elections officials declined to discuss the system or its safety precautions, citing pending litigation, but a December 2013 report by the cybersecurity firm Unatek determined that “the underlying network system infrastructure [is] resilient and … reasonable security controls have been put in place.”
A majority of the board supports certification of the system, voting 3-1 in favor on July 10. But a vote of 4-1 or 5-0 — a supermajority of the five-member board — is required to certify new voting systems in the state.
Security versus accessibility
Unatek’s conclusions have been rejected by security experts, including University of Michigan computer science professor Alex Halderman. His lab demonstrated as recently as May that online voting systems around the world that had received similar bills of health could be infiltrated. Unatek, which did not reply to requests for comment, also certified the security of online systems for the U.S. departments of Homeland Security, Labor, Veterans Affairs and Commerce. All have been the subject of reported hacks in recent years.
Internet voting appeals to voters with disabilities because accessibility is a real problem. Polling places are required to have accessible booths at which blind voters can listen to the choices spoken to them, but often the volume is poor and poll workers are untrained in how to operate them, advocates say. Blind people who wish to vote absentee often must visit the election office and rely on an election worker to faithfully mark their ballots for them, a betrayal of the right to privacy in voting. There is no available system at polling places that permits blind-deaf people or people with motor-skill impairments to vote privately and independently.
“It was very degraded, and how do I know if he voted what I wanted?” said Cindy LeBon, president of the Maryland chapter of the American Council for the Blind (ACB), a rival advocacy group to the NFB, of her experience voting absentee in 2012. “And everybody can hear what I’m saying. I’m whispering, but they could hear. It’s humiliating to have to do that.”
Still, while the NFB supports the proposed Maryland system and says its members found it accessible in trials, the ACB doesn’t. Noel Runyan, a blind computer technology consultant and ACB member, wrote a 10-page report on his trial with the Maryland system in which he said, among other things, that the speech-recognition capability was poor, the voter instructions were confusing and it was impossible without help — thus risking exposing his choices — to determine which of the many printed pages he was supposed to sign.
Blake said members of her group found the system workable and dismissed the security issues. “It’s commonplace for people to do banking online now, purchase goods online. I don’t see how it’s different about marking a ballot online. We tend to forget there are all kinds of security risks involved in paper ballots as well.”
That’s an argument e-voting opponents hear frequently. Simons noted that banks get hacked constantly, but financial institutions cover most consumer losses seamlessly as a cost of doing business. Furthermore, the risks involved with paper ballots pales in comparison to the possible fraud — and the population of possible saboteurs — endemic in an Internet-connected system, she said.
“Once you get computers involved, you can do things on a much more massive scale and with much less risk of being caught,” she said. “If I want to sabotage an election, I can get a hacker in Tajikistan to do it. Or the Russian mafia is full of smart people who break into systems all the time. Look at all the money that’s spent on the presidential elections or the Senate races. A small portion of that money would be a huge windfall for somebody. There’s probably quite a few people who would decide to move off somewhere beyond the reach of U.S. law and rig an election.”